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A Whimpering Roar: The Old Griffith Park Zoo, Then and Now

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I'll admit it. I am a wimp when it comes to dark, confined spaces. I don't even like to look into uncovered manholes or air vents, and I have never felt a greater sense of fear than when I decided it would be a good idea to go into the catacombs of Paris, alone. I don't enjoy planes, 99-seat theaters, or even the backseat of cars. Give me sunshine, wide open spaces and the freedom to move where I want, when I want. Perhaps this is why I empathize enormously with the enclosed animals I see in zoos, be they in cages or "natural" habitats where glass separates their world from ours.

The Old Zoo at Griffith Park was seemingly designed to send someone like me into a full blown panic. Its remains hug the hillside of a sunny canyon about two miles down Crystal Springs Road from the current Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Built into the hillside are abandoned animal "habitats" or "grottoes" that look like the cheap sets from a high school production of Camelot. Venturing inside I found gated off narrow stairways -- like those in a castle -- covered in vibrant graffiti, and bone dry moats enclosed in a thick layer of grime. Everywhere I could hear the eerie echoes of teenagers who had found their way into the stairwells and fenced off portions of the structures. They hooted and hollered into the otherwise peaceful canyon below.

Following the Old Zoo trail, which zigzags further up the canyon side, I found menacing squat cages and the defaced (sometimes artfully) backside of the grottos, where holes have been cut out of protective fences for explorers to shimmy through. Further up the shaded trail there was an abandoned building attached to some kind of rudimentary display cage. Across the path from this large enclosure were low to the ground cages that look like medieval jail cells for children. They were filled with the refuse of the tagger -- spray paint bottles, beer cans and ciggie stubs. I tried to climb into one of the cages, to get perspective, but some kind of internal chill stopped me. The surrounding twigs and leaves were spray painted light blue, and further up the rocky canyon side someone had tagged the word "weed," with an arrow pointing further up the trail.

Suddenly, a lizard darted out of nowhere and rushed down the trail towards the sunshine of the canyon below. "I'm with you little Lizard," I thought, as I turned around and made my way quickly down the old zoo path, past the little prisons that over a thousand animals were once forced to call home.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

The New Wild Animal Center of the World

It was 1907, and Los Angeles already had a zoo problem. The small city zoo at Eastlake Park (now Lincoln Park) featured "accommodations ... so meager ... that all but the finest animals have perished miserably in the cramped cages." 3 The remaining animals were in terrible shape. The deer had tawny skin which hung "like century old parchment paper" and eyes with a look of "devouring pain." The bear pits were simply "cement floor cages a little larger than a piano box". Even the zookeeper admitted that a new zoo was desperately needed. Many city leaders, including the editors at the Los Angeles Times, advocated moving the zoo to Griffith Park:

By 1911, the Park Commission announced that plans were underway for the establishment of the "world's most natural and unique zoo" on 500 acres in Vermont Canyon (now home to the Greek Theater), in Griffith Park. 5 "Instead of walking up and down in front of cages and iron gratings, the small boy who is fortunate enough to live in Los Angeles, may climb to the top of a hill in Griffith Park and see the elk, deer, camels, elephants, zebras and giraffe grazing among the shrubbery of the canyons below him," bragged the Los Angeles Times. "He may see the bear, not lolling in a smelly pit, but coming and going from their natural caves in rocks." 6

Monkeys at L.A. Zoo, 1964 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Monkeys at L.A. Zoo, 1964 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Tillie and Sugar, llamas at the L.A. Zoo, 1949 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Tillie and Sugar, llamas at the L.A. Zoo, 1949 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

However, funding for this noble dream soon fell apart. Instead, a much smaller, slapdash zoo was constructed from 1912-1914, on the Eastside of the park in a canyon under Bee Rock. Over 100 animals from Eastlake and the private collection of railroad man Frank Murphy were moved into the sorry zoo, which was not in any way complete. According to Griffith Park historian Mike Eberts:

Though the new low-rent city zoo was not much better than the one it replaced, it was free, and was soon fairly popular with sightseeing Angelenos. But it was not the only animal game in town. By 1916, the Griffith Park Zoo was competing with the Bostock Collection, the Barnes Wild Animal Circus, and the much larger Selig Zoo in Lincoln Park, which featured over 700 animals used in Selig Studios' motion pictures. This explosion in animals on display led one writer to note that "since Mr. Noah dropped his gangplank on Ararat and set his strange cargo on dry land, there has probably never been such a family reunion as may be seen in the present time. Within the past two years Los Angeles has become the wild animal center of the world." 8

Movie and entertainment professionals brought many animals with strange tales to all of the zoos, including Griffith Park. There was the baby elephant owned by a vaudeville actor named W. Nicola, who had picked up the baby in Rangoon, India, and paid the zoo 50 cents a day to board the elephant for the winter when he took a trip back East.

Mo, Smo, Andy, and Mandy, penguins at L.A. Zoo, 1949 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Mo, Smo, Andy, and Mandy, penguins at L.A. Zoo, 1949 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Giant Tortoise at L.A. Zoo | Photo: Ralph Morris Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Giant Tortoise at L.A. Zoo | Photo: Ralph Morris Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Perhaps the most popular animal at Griffith Park during the '20s and '30s was Old Topsy, the camel with two broken humps. Topsy was said to have been either descended from or one of the original 33 Middle Eastern camels imported by Jefferson Davis in 1852, to replace pack mules for the U.S. mail service. After the end of the Civil War, Topsy had supposedly hauled ore or salt in Arizona and Nevada before becoming an attraction at Ringling Brothers Circus. During his Ringling Brothers' employment he had been involved in a terrible train wreck that had crushed his humps. After a stint at Fox Studios, he had been given to the zoo. When he died in 1934, the governor of Arizona wrote to the L.A. Park Commission:

Topsy had lived his twilight years with a friend almost as ancient, and certainly as interesting as he was. Chief care taker and animal trainer Otto Beyer claimed to have known Topsy when he worked at Ringling Brothers Circus. Then again, old Otto claimed a lot of things. There was the time in 1928 when he wandered into a local hospital with a head laceration, unable to recall anything until he was put under hypnosis, after which he began:

And then there was the tale of the turtle fights, which Beyer first learned of when he heard birds screaming in the aviary. In the aviary, he found "scores of turtles":

Otto died in 1933. For its entire existence, Van Griffith and the rest of the Park Commission had been frankly embarrassed by the funny little zoo, and plans for the fabled "Vermont Canyon Zoo" were periodically announced. However, the coming of the Depression would give the park a second wind. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Scores of Civil Workers Association (CWA) workers descended on the park to make improvements. But the zoo's bears were not waiting around for their promised new home. After the great New Year's Flood of 1934, the bears escaped their cage at the zoo. One, a honey bear, bit the hand of a CWA worker who was trying to capture it. It had no interest in going back home.

'Battling Turtles Enliven Zoo' | Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1931
'Battling Turtles Enliven Zoo' | Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1931

WPA Whitewash

During the Depression and World War II, Angelenos were looking for happy stories to take their minds off their troubles. There was a huge uptick in visitors to the zoo. There was also an explosion of coverage of zoo animals in local papers, often accompanied by adorable pictures. Here was Queenie the zebra being photographed proudly with her new baby colt Prince! Here was Tommie, the zoo's new elephant, who thrilled visitors by catching tossed apples, bread and peanuts in her mouth. During the war, the headline of a story about a nesting Egyptian goose actually read, "HERE'S A STORY TO TAKE YOUR MIND OFF WAR!" The fluff piece below is typical of zoo coverage during this time:

Despite a massive WPA improvement project started in 1936, things continued to be weird at Griffith Park Zoo. In 1937, zoo superintendent Byron C. Gibson was called to the Griffith Observatory after a privately owned monkey somehow broke into the building's attic. Gibson finally lured him to capture with banana bait. There were continuing, disturbing stories. Prince, the baby zebra, was found with a fractured neck after crashing into a fence during a frightening storm. A baby bear suffered a similar fate, while a "sissy" leopard supposedly died of "fright" after injuring his paw. Even the animals' transportation to their new WPA constructed homes in 1939 did not go smoothly. Getting honey bears Elsie and Alice into one of the "seven new grottoes constructed...at a cost of $500,000" 14 was an ordeal:

Camels at L.A. Zoo, ca. 1910-1916 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Camels at L.A. Zoo, ca. 1910-1916 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Elementary school children and teachers at L.A. Zoo entrance, 1958 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Elementary school children and teachers at L.A. Zoo entrance, 1958 | Photo: Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Also, moving Rufus, the 625 pound lion, to his new home was a downright nightmare, which resulted in him spending the night trapped in the grotto's deep moat. The L.A. Times joked:

But the new facilities were inadequate to hold the over 1000 animals the zoo had acquired. By 1949, chief animal keeper Charles Allen was calling for a bigger zoo. It was so cramped, he was "fearful his kangaroos, wallabies and antelopes" would forget, "for lack of space to practice, how to take a respectable leap." 17

The Blame Game

Things came to a head in the 1950s. Charges of "shameful neglect and mistreatment of animals," factional rivalry among zoo employees, and a series of council hearings and government reports became an ongoing local story. Many believed that the mess was manipulated and made worse by Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman and the non-profit organization "Friends of the Zoo," who wanted to build a new "Super Zoo" in Elysian Park. Fighting among zoo employees became so bad that one keeper resigned after asserting that his co-workers had sabotaged his car three times by pouring sugar in his gas tank. Charges of penguins being suffocated by chlorine fumes and monkeys being beaten by clubs were levelled at various employees. It is fitting that the zoo's most famous animal in its last days was a polar bear named Ivan the Terrible, who brutally killed three other polar bears. The L.A. Times described one deadly fight between Ivan and his victim Bourneven:

In the end, the new "World Zoo" was built two miles down the road in Griffith Park. In 1966, over 2000 animals were moved from the old zoo to their shiny new home. Parts of the old zoo were dismantled, but some parts still stand. They are moving reminders that sometimes humans just don't know best.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

_____

1 "The new wild animal center of the world" Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1916
2 "good short stories" Los Angeles Times, Oct 27, 1929
3 "Zoo like Bronx for Los Angeles official plan in Griffith Park" Los Angeles Times, Oct 13, 1907
4 Ibid.
5 "precipices to retain large-game animals " Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1911
6 Ibid.
7 Mike Eberts, "Griffith Park: A Centennial History" pg. 137
8 "The new wild animal center of the world" Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1916
9 "Arizona mourns Griffith park camels" Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1934
10 "Your baby: park caretaker lies unconscious after slugging" Los Angeles Times, Dec 24, 1928
11 "Battling turtles enliven zoo: Griffith park keeper has new problem" Los Angeles Times, July 6 1931
12 Advertisement, LA Times, Nov 15 1936
13 "Animal prima donnas display king and princess" Los Angeles Times, Jan 9, 1938:
14 "Bears moved at park zoo" Los Angeles Times, Jan 12, 1939
15 Ibid.
16 "Zoo lion still roars in pit gp beast resists all efforts to lure him to new home " Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1929:
17 "Zoo has too many tenants more 'lebensraum' needed" Los Angeles Times, July 15, 1949
18 "Story of 40-year-old L.A. Zoo is a wild one" Daily News, November 10, 2006
19 "Zoo battle tranquilizer stop" Los Angeles Times, September 8, 1961

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